BY LESLIE BRIDGERS

The Portland Press Herald

Disgruntled riders of the state-run van pools have asked the Maine Department of Transportation commissioner for a year-long extension of the service, which is slated to end in May.

The riders also hope to get the attention of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee by attending its meeting today, where the MDOT plans to give a presentation about why the service is ending.

The MDOT informed 225 van pool riders late last month that it had decided to end the service because it wouldn’t have the federal funding needed to replace its aging vehicles.

Sue Moreau, passenger services manager for MDOT, has said the state owns 27 vans, which have a useful life of about five years. Each costs between $40,000 and $45,000, and none have been replaced since 2008, she has said.

Go Maine, the MDOT-funded program that oversees the van pool and other commuter services, has offered to continue to help commuters find van rides, through Michigan-based VPSI Inc., a business that said it can offer a comparable service.

But riders who have looked into using VPSI say it could cost significantly more money and it requires one of the van riders to take on the burden of leasing the vehicle.

“It’s really completely different,” said Bob Stein, who has been commuting from Portland to Augusta in a van pool for the past six years.

On Wednesday, Stein sent a letter to MDOT Commissioner David Bernhardt, signed by more than 100 van pool riders, that said they were “dismayed and stunned” by the announcement that the service was ending so abruptly and by the department’s failure to reach out to riders before making that decision.

“We are sure you regret this oversight and hope you agree it should be rectified,” the letter said.

The letter proposed a year-long extension to give the DOT time to work with riders and explore more possibilities for keeping the program going, such as raising fees or finding other funding sources.

MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot said the department had been planning on increasing its fees for the service by 25 to 30 percent, before making the decision to end it.

Stein said he received a response to the letter Wednesday from Moreau, who said the commissioner had asked her to meet with riders to talk about the transition to using VPSI.

He hopes legislators will help the riders get more than that out of the MDOT.

Nina Fisher, the MDOT’s legislative liaison, said it’s possible for lawmakers to introduce new legislation to keep the program going, but it’s late in the session to do that and she doesn’t think it’s likely.

“We’re not expecting significant pushback. The numbers speak for themselves,” she said.

Fisher said there’s no public comment period scheduled during the Transportation Committee’s 1 p.m. meeting today.

“We’re simply briefing them on what we’re doing,” she said.

Stein said he doesn’t expect many riders to attend the meeting, but at least a few of them will be there to answer any questions that committee members may have of them.

“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said, “but we’ll be there.”

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